By Reza Mollaaghababa
On May 9, 2018, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) issued a notice of proposed rule for changing the standard for construing claims in unexpired patents in inter partes review (IPR), post-grant review (PGR), and transitional covered business method (CBM) proceedings from current broadest reasonable interpretation (BRI) to the same claim construction standard that is utilized in the federal courts, i.e., the so-called Phillips standard.
Under the Phillips standard, the words of a claim are generally given their ordinary and customary meaning. In contrast, in post-grant review proceedings, the more expansive BRI standard is employed, which expands the scope of prior art that can be applied to invalidate the challenged claims. The BRI standard has been in fact outcome determinative in many of the proceedings.
The notice of proposed rule indicates that the U.S. Supreme Court has endorsed the PTO’s ability to choose an approach to claim construction for AIA proceedings. It also indicates that the proposed change in the claim construction standard could lead to greater uniformity and predictability between the claim constructions adopted by the PTAB and the federal courts. This change will also harmonize the standard used for patentability and infringement, which could otherwise lead to unfair results. For example, under BRI, it is possible for a patent claim to be invalidated based on a prior art reference although the construction of the same claim in an issued patent under the Phillips standard would not lead to a conclusion of infringement. Moreover, there have been cases of a patent being found valid and infringed in a district court action but subsequently being found invalid by the PTO under the BRI standard.
The proposed change applies not only to the claims of an unexpired patent but also to claims presented in a motion to amend. “Under the proposed approach, the PTAB would construe patent claims based on the record of the IPR, PGR, or CBM proceeding taking into account the claim language itself, specification, and prosecution history pertaining to the patent.” Further, consistent with the Phillips standard, extrinsic evidence, such as expert testimony and dictionaries, may be useful in determining what a person of ordinary skill would understand the claim terms to mean; however, extrinsic evidence is viewed as less reliable than intrinsic evidence.
Further, consistent with the Phillips standard, “the doctrine of construing claims to preserve their validity would apply to AIA trials.” The notice, however, cautions that the doctrine of construing claims to preserve their validity has been limited to cases in which “the court concludes, after applying all the available tools of claim construction, that the claim in ambiguous.” Further, the Federal Circuit “repeatedly and consistently has recognized that the courts may not redraft claims, whether to make them operable or to sustain their validity.”
The PTO intends that any proposed rule changes adopted in a final rule would be applied to all pending IPR, PGR, and CBM proceedings before the PTAB. The Office is presently soliciting comments on the proposed change, where written comments must be received by July 9, 2018 to ensure consideration.